Composition Isn't Everything

"Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk"Edward Weston

It's been a little while since I last talked about photography around here, and I've had the itch lately so you can expect a few more upcoming articles on the subject. Today's topic is photo composition.

Composition is one of those subjects that comes up all the time in photography. There are entire books dedicated to the rule of thirds (sometimes referred to as the golden ratio). The masters tell us to use leading lines whenever possible, and to focus (heh) on our depth-of-field.

These kinds of tips are great, and a lot of the time they will help you produce better photos than if you just pointed your camera at something and snapped the shot without thinking about it. But worrying about composition too much can also cause the photographer to miss a crucial moment.

Take this photo of Jack Lew being sworn in as Treasury Secretary, for example:


When I see this photo, I don't see a political agenda, or any of the usual bitterness shared between members of upper government. I have no idea at all where Jack Lew stands on any issues. What I see is a man, surrounded by family members, all of whom dressed up nice and came with him to the Oval Office to support him on this momentous occasion. Just look how happy everyone is.

And yet, it isn't an especially fantastic composition. It doesn't have to be in order for the photo to turn out great.

This scene wouldn't have been empirically better or more interesting if the photographer had stood up on a chair and tried to capture it all from some weird vantage point. Jack Lew and Joe Biden aren't perfectly centered. In fact, everything is a little off-balance because of where everyone is standing. But none of that really matters.

The photographer simply stood across the room, made sure everyone fit into the frame, and pushed a button at the right time. Sometimes that's all it takes to properly convey the story.

Patrick Rhone very nearly touched on this idea in his "Happy Accidents" piece:

“Once again, action shots should have action. They shouldn’t be perfect. They shouldn’t be still. They should be blurry and full of energy. Glad I did not toss this one.”

I'm sure many of us have been guilty of the same thing, quickly trashing images that didn't meet our expectations or weren't as well-composed as we had hoped because we were in a rush. But what I've found is that those "accidents" can sometimes be more exciting than a "properly" composed image.

None of this is to say that nobody should study the rules of composition. In fact, I highly encourage doing so because then you'll know exactly how to break the rules when it's required. Still, I would argue that the more important factors of a great shot are usually timing and luck, rather than the composition itself.